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What’s New for the iPad in iOS 4.2.1

For those of us with an iPhone or iPod touch running iOS 4, it has been a small torture to switch back and forth between one of those devices and an iPad with iOS 3.2, the version it shipped with (or 3.2.1, a minor update that appeared shortly thereafter). We miss fast app switching, folders, background audio, the unified Mail Inbox, and other features that seemed invaluable the minute they became available. It has felt like a long wait for the iPad to get its due at last—so long that determining what’s new between iOS 3.2.1 on the iPad and iOS 4.2.1 took some research. Here’s our list of the highlights.

Multitasking -- The iPad with iOS 3.2 can handle only a single task at a time, with a few exceptions for Apple apps and activities. For instance, you could play music in the background from the iPod app or audio playing in Safari, or receive data via push (such as new calendar events or email) even if you weren’t running the appropriate app for that data.

Think of iOS 4.2.1 as adding 20 points to the iPad’s IQ, enabling it to keep track of more things at once while an unrelated app is active. Background multitasking comes in a few flavors: audio, location, voice over IP, printing, and streaming. It enables independent apps to play music in the background, update location information for mapping and navigation programs, receive and continue handling an Internet phone call, keep a file spooling to a printer, and streaming audio and video to an Apple TV all at the same time as you’re using another program.

Background multitasking is distinct from iOS 4’s capability to let you switch among recently launched apps. That’s up next.

Fast App Switching -- Fast app switching means no more long waits on splash screens for the same app to launch for the seventh time in one work session. As you might expect, an app must be recompiled for iOS 4 before it can take advantage of the instant-save state. Also, if the iPad runs out of memory, it quietly kills less-recently used apps in the background, requiring a relaunch when you return. (See Matt Neuburg’s more detailed description in “What is Fast App Switching?,” 23 June 2010.)

Pressing the Home button twice quickly brings up the fast-app switching interface, sliding the home screen up to reveal a drawer of recently used apps, shown in order of recency from left to right. Swipe from right to left to view more, and tap an app icon to switch to it.

Because the Home double-press option is now reserved for fast app switching, it’s no longer possible to customize an action for that double press. In iOS 3.2, you could specify that a double-press would take you to the first Home screen, the Search screen, or switch to the iPod app. Double-pressing the button when the iPad is locked still brings up the audio playback controls without having to unlock the device, however.

Audio, Orientation, and Brightness Controls -- The app drawer also reveals options mostly unrelated to switching. Swipe left-to-right with the drawer open and the iPad offers several new controls. A new screen orientation lock button replaces the previous functionality of the hardware switch (which now becomes a sort of mute button, silencing sound effects but not music). A screen dimming slider is a welcome new adjustment, saving a trip to the Settings app whenever you want to dim the screen.

Also appearing are playback controls (previous, play/pause, next) that control whichever app is playing media; this applies not just to the iPod app, but also to others such as Pandora or Apple’s Videos app (which is handy if you’re using AirPlay to stream video to an Apple TV).

Lastly, if you have AirPlay-compatible devices on your network (such as an Apple TV, AirPort Express, or third-party hardware that works with the service), an AirPlay icon appears to the right of the playback controls, next to a volume slider.

Folders -- You can now group apps into “folders” (though visually they don’t look like folders at all). After pressing and holding on an app to enable the app customizing interface—where the app icons all jiggle—drag one app on top of another to create a folder, or drag an app to an existing folder to add it. Don’t forget that you can also rearrange icons and build folders in the Apps screen of iTunes when the iPad is connected and selected in the sidebar; it’s easier to select and move several apps at a time there.

AirPlay -- AirPlay is a new name for Apple’s older AirTunes technology, previously available only within iTunes. Using AirPlay, the iPad can stream audio over a Wi-Fi network to an AirPort Express base station connected to a stereo, an Apple TV (old and new models), and other devices that support AirTunes/AirPlay. AirPlay can stream to multiple devices at once.

AirPlay brings with it not just the name change, but the capability to stream video or photos to the new Apple TV announced in September 2010 for playback on a TV; older Apple TV models don’t include the video-streaming feature. Thanks to multitasking, the video can stream in the background while you’re using other apps on the iPad or when the iPad is locked.

The Apple TV has to be updated to version 4.1 of its operating system, which was released on the same day as iOS 4.2.1. On the Apple TV, choose Settings, then General, then Software Update.

AirPrint -- One shortcoming of iOS 3.2 on the iPad for business travelers was the inability to print from the device without third-party software. The good news is that AirPrint adds the capability to print under iOS 4.2.1; the bad news is that the feature is extremely limited.

Currently, the iPad can print directly only to a small set of supported HP printers. Apple originally promised that AirPrint would also work with other printers shared by a Mac on a network, but that capability didn’t materialize with this release. (A great alternative is Ecamm’s $9.95 Printopia, a Mac OS X preference pane that creates compatible virtual printers for printers that your Mac can print to; it also enables you to send PDFs from your iOS device to the Mac or a Dropbox folder.)

Game Center -- The Game Center app was introduced in iOS 4.1 for the iPhone, and it’s new to the iPad with iOS 4.2.1. Although many iOS games have a multiplayer option that makes it possible to play with people across the room or across the globe, Apple’s Game Center app gives you a centralized home for accessing many multiplayer games, all with one login account (your iTunes Store account), one handle, one friends list, and one über-scoreboard. It also gives game developers a single method of programming their user-interaction options.

As with Ping, Apple’s iTunes social-networking service, Game Center isn’t well integrated with other social networks, with your contacts, or with much of anything else. You have to establish friends one at a time in a tedious fashion, although it is at least associated with your Apple ID: the same friends appear in Game Center across multiple iOS devices.

Mail Improvements -- If you manage more than one email account, you’ll be relieved that Mail under iOS 4.2.1 now supports a unified Inbox where all incoming messages appear. Finally, no more multiple taps just to switch between Inboxes in several accounts. Other improvements include:

  • Message threads are also now grouped together, keeping email discussions together instead of having to peck through the Inbox to find related messages.

  • If you use Exchange ActiveSync, you’ll be happy to know that you can now sync more than one such account. This includes Microsoft and Google, among others. And, Exchange Server 2010 is supported. You can also set up more than one to use in the Mail app for email.

  • You can now prevent users of your iOS device from changing email account settings.

  • You can now move a message from one account to another.

  • MobileMe aliases are now supported automatically, and thanks to improvements in MobileMe, you can now use your MobileMe account to send mail with a From addresses other than or

  • It’s now possible to open Mail attachments in a variety of other apps.

  • Data Detectors now detect dates and times.

Search Improvements -- Searching has been improved in iOS 4.2.1 as well. Now, when you swipe right on the first page of the home screen to display the Spotlight search screen, your searches can be extended beyond the confines of the iPad. That feature comes courtesy of Search Web and Search Wikipedia options that appear at the bottom of the Spotlight search results; tapping Search Web sends the search to your default search engine in Safari and tapping Search Wikipedia opens Safari and performs the search in Wikipedia.

Also new and welcome is the capability to search within a Web page in Safari, although you may have trouble finding it. The trick is to tap the search field that you would normally use to search in Google, Yahoo, or Bing, and start typing. As the iPad shows suggestions, look at the bottom of the suggestion list for “On This Page” matches. Tap it, and then notice that a new search bar appears at the bottom of the screen with a Next button that lets you advance to the next found match (there’s no Previous button for moving backward), a search field in which you can change what you’re searching for, and a Done button if you want to hide the toolbar (tapping any link also causes it to disappear).

Minor Tweaks -- There are many other small changes in iOS 4.2.1, including the capability to rent TV shows in HD from iTunes, sync notes wirelessly, reply to event invitations from within the Calendar app, change fonts in the Notes app, use over 30 new international keyboards and dictionaries, and take advantage of enhanced features for enterprises.

We’ll be continuing to explore our iPads to see what other changes Apple might have shoehorned into iOS 4.2.1, and if you learn of anything we haven’t mentioned so far, let us know in the comments!


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Comments about What’s New for the iPad in iOS 4.2.1
(Comments are closed.)

Matt Neuburg  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2010-11-23 05:57
TidBITS News users unite! After upgrading your iPad to iOS 4.2.1, you can at last download the current version of TidBITS News and acquire all the yummy multitasking fast-starting goodness and other improvements that we rolled into it when we updated it for iOS 4.0 on iPhone.
Matt Neuburg  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2010-11-23 05:59
The switch on the side of the iPad that used to lock orientation now functions as a sort of Mute button. It doesn't mute music but it does mute other sounds and sound effects.
Dennis B. Swaney  2010-11-30 09:55
Definitely a boo-boo on Apple's part. In January's announcement, this was how the switch worked. By April, Apple had realized that the mute switch was not needed on the iPad (unlike an iPhone) and made it the orientation lock. Why the reversal is beyond me. I have no use for muting on my iPad but I do use orientation lock. It is asinine to bury it. There should be an option in Settings to use the switch for either muting or for orientation lock.
dick carter  2010-11-23 13:24
Anyone having problems with the Camera Connection Kit? Bought one 2 days ago and since the update, I can't use my USB keyboard.
Glenn Fleishman  2010-11-23 13:33
Opposite issue: my iPad keyboard dock stopped working a few months ago. I thought it had gone bad. The iOS 4.2.1 update on the iPad made it work again.
dick carter  2010-11-23 15:22
My keyboard is an old Apple Platinum Pro. Each time I plugged it in I was told the attachment wasn't supported but it worked anyway - till the update.
Frances  2010-11-24 04:17
same issue. Apple USB keyboard isnt working because of the update. Does it mean we have to jailbreak it ?
David Aiken  2010-11-25 12:01
I've used a USB speaker for the iPod app via the Camera Connector. It worked but I used to get the "Device not supported" message. Just tested it and it still works but I no longer get the "Device not supported" message
Tom Gewecke  2010-11-24 09:15
For more info on new language features, see

Mobile Safari can now display embedded fonts, which I think is important since you can't add any to iOS yourself. I have a test page here:
Stephen Finlay  2010-11-26 20:10
AirTunes / AirPlay is certainly not available to my 1st gen AppleTV from either the iPhone or the iPad ( only works from iTunes ) even for audio only.
Adam Engst  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2010-11-27 12:17
I'm not getting an AirPlay icon on my iPhone 4 running iOS 4.2.1 to talk to my 802.11b/g AirPort Express, even though our Macs and iPads can talk to it. Not sure why yet - they're all on the same network.
Dennis B. Swaney  2010-11-30 10:02
Perhaps AirPlay uses 802.11n now?
There's a small app called AirPrintHacktivator that enables printing to a printer shared on your Mac. Quick, easy, and it works nicely!
Dennis B. Swaney  2010-11-30 10:06
I use Printopia from ECAMM:

As mentioned in the article, it works great!
> A new screen orientation lock button replaces the
> previous functionality of the hardware switch
> (more on this in a moment).

It appears that part got lost. The article never goes back to discussing the changes regarding the hardware switch.
Adam Engst  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2010-11-30 05:44
Ach, I saw that in final editing and forgot to fix it. I've changed the parenthetical to note that the hardware switch is now a sort of mute button for sound effects.
Thanks, Adam.
Michael Cohen  2010-11-30 17:20
I did a little experimenting with the sorta-Mute switch, to see what it was and wasn't muting, which I describe here:

I'm ambivalent about the new location of the screen-lock interface. On the one hand, it's four gestures: a double-click, a slide, and a tap, and then another tap to return to what you were doing. On the other hand, I find I can do that with greater fluidity than when I used to toggle the hardware switch, which I sometimes had to fumble for because it's wedged-in against the edge of the cutout in the Apple iPad case.

I can see why some people are exercised about the change, but I'm not. I don't mind the four-gesture sequence nearly as much as I thought I might.
Jonathan Fewtrell  2010-12-01 01:36
Please don't say the additional keyboards/dictionaries are a 'minor tweak'. For many that is by far the most important new feature. For instance, people were stunned here in Apple-mad Hong Kong (and probably even more so in Taiwan) when they rushed to the stores to get iPads and found that 3.2 didn't allow Trad Chinese input. It was baffling considering that earlier versions for iPhone had allowed it for ages.
Adam Engst  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2010-12-01 06:20
Thanks for letting us know - that's one of those features that's impossible for us in the United States to realize the importance of in other countries.
Charles Harwell  2010-12-02 03:09
I've updated my IPAD to the new IOS, and have had trouble with two apps (NYTimes and WSJ); they both got the ipad into a state where the touch screen stopped working. Has anyone else noticed anything similar?
Joachim  2010-12-02 13:08
Airprint to all shared printers works great if you follow these instructions (in german):

translated by goooogle:

works great for me...